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Brave Changes

Finding cool names for red-faced teams

By Bob Harris

A WHILE BACK, I wrote that honoring baseball legend Jackie Robinson means more than just retiring his number. It means continuing to overcome racism, both in baseball and in real life.

Let's begin.

Here's a way to gradually build alternatives to team names like the Redskins, Indians, Braves, and Chiefs. (Yeah, it's cosmetic, but ideas matter. Ask Rosa Parks.) I grew up as a Cleveland baseball fan, so that's the team I'll use as an example. The idea can work anywhere.

The Indians' mascot is Chief Wahoo, a red Sambo that most Clevelanders honestly don't realize is an embarrassment to a troubled town trying hard to present a sophisticated face. Regarding the logo, fans fall into three categories: (A) Those who love Wahoo. Most don't mind that others disagree, but they dislike protests that distract from their enjoyment of the game. (B) Those who love the team but aren't quite comfortable with the logo. They'd like to cheer for the Indians in a less offensive way. (C) Those for whom changing the mascot has become a priority. Demands from this last group to dump Chief Wahoo have so far created only animosity. That's largely because protesters have so far offered nothing better than criticism.

That hardens everyone.

The solution? Create a positive alternative--one cool enough that people will eventually choose it voluntarily. Fans who prefer not to wear Wahoo can simply begin using a different name and logo on their own, one with real appeal to anyone who adores baseball history: the Cleveland Spiders. (Sure, it sounds a little goofy at first. Stay with me on this.)

Cleveland's team wasn't always called the Indians. In 1900, they were the Blues. They were the Broncos in 1902, and then the Naps until 1904. They weren't the Indians until 1905--named after Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who was a major star in 1897. Sockalexis played for the Cleveland Spiders.

The Spiders were the first major league franchise in Cleveland. In 1892, they also became the first to reach the playoffs, where they lost the championship to Boston. (That should feel familiar to any real Cleveland fan.)

Although they never won a title, the Spiders contended every year until 1898, when the owner pulled a fast one and shipped all the good players to his other team in St. Louis. (That feels really familiar.)

Baseball fans love nostalgia. In Cleveland, jackets and caps from the pennant years of 1954, 1948, and 1920 are considered stylish. So how much hipper can you get than the Spiders, who featured Cy Young in his prime and played at League Park, Cleveland's equivalent to Ebbets Field or old Comiskey?

If Spiders merchandise retains the Indians' color scheme, then everybody's rooting for the same team here--just in his or her own way. And dialogue over the existing name will be vastly improved for everyone. Spiders shirts, caps, and jackets don't yet exist. They should.

Here's how:

First, somebody who cares prints up buttons, small pennants, bumper stickers, etc. and distributes them outside Jacobs Field for free, along with business cards providing an explanation and contact info for media and investors. A local radio station, magazine, or even sporting goods store can cover the cost with ads on the backs of the cards. When the Spiders idea gains some publicity and support, somebody with money will invest in the bigger stuff. (Maybe eventually the Indians themselves, if the demand is large enough.)

The Spiders name has a lot of other pluses--you can instantly imagine a cool mascot and a great logo--but that's getting ahead of the game.

Personally, I'm rooting for Jim Thome, David Justice, and the rest of the Spiders from now on. It sounds strange at first, but come on, folks--there's already a cemetery right across the street from Jacobs Field. Of course this team should be called the Spiders. Cleveland's baseball team was named the same year Birth of a Nation became a blockbuster. Honoring the Klan isn't acceptable anymore. Is Chief Wahoo? The Spiders alternative gives fans a way to change their minds at their own pace, in a way that honors the city and its team while embarrassing no one.

If the idea works, Cleveland's--dare I say it?--brave example will show fans in Atlanta, Kansas City, Washington, and across the country how to come up with their own solutions to the problem of offensive pro and college mascots.

No matter where you live, similar alternative names, fitting each city's history, surely exist. Let's show the way.

Think globally, root locally.

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From the May 15-21, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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